The American society has often been described as sustaining a stereotypic and negative perception towards older adults. Contrary to other types of categorization of individuals such as racism and sexism, ageism has received relatively insignificant attention. Ageism leads to discrimination in social-economic aspects such as medical attention, business, and social gatherings among others. This paper discusses the social separation of the old and the young people that leads to ageism. It also discusses ageism in the modern American society that was started by changes from agricultural to industrial based economies thereby rendering elderly land owners less powerful and authoritative in society. The paper also presents the fears, attitudes of ageism such as diseases, loss of attractiveness among others. Wise guidance among others is discussed as a positive aspect of the ageing process while various forms of vulnerability are discussed as the side effects of ageism. In conclusion, the paper presents education in schools as a viable way to promote positive attitudes about aging.
In the society people, are often categorized by age, gender or race. The latter two- sexism and racism have often attracted disapproval in many societies as they are deemed as the worst forms of violation of human rights (Nelson, 2005). While a lot of attention to prejudice has often centered on race and gender, very little attention goes into age-based prejudice. It is not uncommon to hear statements such as “a dirty, old man” “a weird, old witch” being directed at the elderly people in society. Ageism is equally hurting and should be stopped. Ageism is also described as age discrimination and is the stereotyping or the discrimination of individuals because of their age (Bythewa, 2005). The discrimination stems from a set of norms, values and attitudes that people and especially those below the old age (65 years and below) use to justify age-based prejudice and subordination. Though the term has also been used to discriminate against children and teenagers by ignoring their ideas because they are deemed to be too young, it has overwhelmingly been used to discriminate against old people.
THE SOCIAL SEPARATION OF OLD AND YOUNG INDIVIDUALS
There have been great social separations between old and young people due to generational changes, socio-economic changes, advances in technology and education systems among other factors (Reeve & Angus, 2006). This has caused some misunderstanding and created a disagreement between the two groups. For instance emphasis on education has compelled young people to spend close to half of their lifetimes in educational institutions with their peers. This gives the young people a hard time trying to adapt to social interactions with old people.
Many people currently aged above 65 years were born and grew up when technology was evolving while many of today’s youngsters have witnessed and even ushered in modern technology. According to Bigler and Liben (2006), these developments have created a different type of social interactions for instance through social networking sites. Though several old people use social media to interact with their friends, the number is significantly low as compared to the young people using the same media.
Social separation between old and young individuals has also come in the form of pastime activities that pre-occupies each category of people. While young people still engage in traditional and ‘conventional’ games such as basketball, football and athletics among others, the numbers have reduced significantly. This is because many young people have taken up other games such as video games and games that are relatively new to some places (Bernard & Scharf, 2007). This aspect further increases the separation between young and old people.
Social separation between young and old people is also enhanced by the school education system. The changing curriculums and modes of learning such as electronic learning (e-learning) that have become favorite among young people have further separated the young people from the old.
AGEISM TODAY IN AMERICA SOCIETY
America has a graying population. At the moment, people who are aged 65 years and above make up more than 13% of the population. It is estimated that by 2030, old people commonly referred to as seniors will make up 19% of the American population (Nelson, 2005). This statistics that should draw people towards reducing age-based prejudice, but ageism is rife in the American society. America is termed as the most democratic country in the world. Its constitution gives its citizens unparalleled freedoms and rights which encourage people to express themselves and voice their concerns in all areas of their lives. It is these freedoms and rights that have compelled people to express their displeasure with ageing to a point of showing old people outright prejudice in some areas (Bodner, 2009).
In America, cases of ageism are increasing. Statistics show that each year, about three million Americans in the old age bracket are mistreated, exploited or injured by someone on whom they rely on for care and protection. Moreover, nine out of ten nursing homes are understaffed while research has shown that cancer patients aged 65 years and above receive less aggressive care as compared to younger patients (Nelson, 2005). Moreover, old people are the hardest hit by calamities because most of them are in most cases physically dependent on others for mobility. For instance during the Hurricane Katrina, 60% of all the victims were aged above 65 years.
In the ancient times, old age was highly valued. Old people provided experience, knowledge and institutional memory that ensured the continuity of societies. As societies grew from agricultural-based economies, where old men owned land, to industrialized economies where work was not centered at home, old people lost authority (Bevan & Thompson, 2003). As societies became less cohesive and capitalistic the trend where old age was held in high esteem changed. As the number of old people and especially the frail and very old people increased, the perception began to grow that they were burdens to their immediate families and to the society (Bevan & Thompson, 2003).
Besides the historic and economic circumstances that brought about ageism, ageism is also deeply rooted in human psychology. People have concerns and fears about their vulnerability as they advance in age. People fear to become weak, frail, diseased, economically and physically dependent on others (Billings, 2006). These concerns and fears often manifest themselves in form of neglect and contempt for the old people. Clarke and Warren (2007) assert that the culture among Americans emphasizes on the freedom of expression and as such America faces increased cases of mistreatment of old people in various forms. The attacks on old people are usually verbal and in most cases mild. They for instance manifest themselves as shoves in public places, stern looks, shouting at old people, as well and jumping them while in queues (Bodner, 2009).. The stereotyping of old people can also lead to violent attacks such as robberies, murders and rapes.
THE FEARS AND NEGATIVE ATTITUDES OF AGEISM BY YOUNGER GENERATIONS
There are several gears and negatives the young people associate with old age. The first one is economic dependence on others. While many old people are financially dependent on their younger family members for survival, this perception at times causes unnecessary worries and prejudice against old people. Not all old people are poor. Some of the world’s richest people are aged 65% and above. According to Forbes magazine, only one out of the world’s top ten richest people is aged below 65 years of age! (Bodner, 2009). With the advent of numerous pension and social welfare schemes, many people are saving huge chunks of their income for their old age. This has significantly reduced financial dependence on the younger population.
The other fear for old age stems from the fear of diseases. As people grow old their immunity declines and comparatively they become prone to numerous medical conditions such as cancers, Alzheimer’s, arthritis among others. While this is true it is important that young people avoid stereotyping old age by viewing all old people and diseased and sickly. This is because there has been an increase in the number of young people barely in their teens who are suffering from cancers, high blood pressure, and diabetes among other diseases highly prevalent in the old people. Lifestyles characterized by excessive intake of alcohol, cigarettes, poor dieting and lack of exercise are major contributing factors to nearly all the dreaded ‘old-age’ diseases (Clarke & Warren, 2007). People who maintain a healthy lifestyle are likely to maintain good health deep into old-age and may even die well past 100 years of age of old-age complications. It is therefore wrong to prejudge all old people as diseased or use it as criteria for discrimination.
Young people also fear loss of physical beauty and attractiveness. As one grows old the body changes, wrinkles appear on the skin, the hair turns grey among other changes. Very few young people if any envy the look of a typical old person. However, this stereotyped image of old people is not always the case. There is no given age at which these physical changes occur. While there are 80-year olds with black, natural hair, there are many people aged below 50 years whose hair is all grey! There are also many people above 65 years of age whose skin is smooth and tight while other barely into their 50s have visibly wrinkled skins. Though largely true, Physical attractiveness must not necessarily diminish as one grows old and physical attractiveness should not be used as a basis to discriminate against anybody or prejudge their age (Reeve & Angus, 2006).
THE ELDERLY POSITIVE PERSPECTIVES OF THE AGING PROCESS
There are several positives perspectives of the ageing process. The principal perspective that comes with ageing is that one becomes wiser and gains more experience in handling challenges in life. In life one is bound to go through various challenges and experiences that make the person wiser and more prepared to handle life’s greater challenges. In America for instance, there are many elderly men who served in the US military and were fought in Vietnam and elsewhere during America’s formative years. There are even those who participated in the 2nd World War. Sharing with such men on the challenges they faced in war gives hope, insight and wise counsel to the modern generation (Lupien & Wan, 2004). Having seen, heard and internalized more than the young people, the elderly people are a rich resource of advice in the society.
The ageing process also allows for the replacement of those individuals at the workplace. Younger people take up positions previously held by the ageing population. This enhances the running of social institutions and industries. These issues ensure the betterment of the society for human existence.
THE SIDE EFFECTS OF AGEISM ON THE ELDERLY
There are several side-effects of ageism. First it leads to the unfair denial of the aged people a right to enjoy all the fundamental rights and freedoms entitled to all people (Bernard &Scharf, 2007). For instance, old people who fear being shoved and shouted at in the shopping malls and other public places may opt not to move out of their houses at all unless when it is very necessary. This may happen in spite of the old person in question being an enthusiast of leisurely walks. Old people may also fear to question or air their views in public for fear of being ridiculed or misinterpreted. This limits the extent to which old people may give wise and visionary counsel to life’s dilemmas (Bernard &Scharf, 2007).
The other side-effect of ageism is the economic discrimination of old people. For instance if one is prejudiced against getting into business with an old person, they may lose out on substantial financing, advise and experience. Failure to collaborate with the old people denies them an opportunity to better their economic status and thereby reduce their dependence on the younger population (Bevan & Thompson, 2003). It would be appropriate if both the young and the old openly discussed business, and the economic affairs of the society.
The other side effect of ageism is that it leads to improper medical attention to the old people and could quicken their demise. Some of the medical conditions that old people report to hospitals could be cured, but when age-based prejudice sets in, medical staff may ignore genuine concerns as an unimportant attempt by an old person to gain attention (Bythewa, 2005). This may exacerbate the condition and even cause the old person to die prematurely since their immunity is significantly compromised. Premature deaths of old people leave the society starved of an essential component of wholesome societies.
EDUCATION IN SCHOOLS, TO PROMOTE POSITIVE ATTITUDES ABOUT AGING
In order to promote positive attitudes towards ageing, there should be combined effort to discourage the vice. Age-based prejudice should be given accorded attention as much as racial and gender based prejudices. Educational curriculums ought to factor in education on ageism especially in the lower classes to inculcate respect for the old among the young people and ensure that they grow into respectful individuals who uphold utmost justice and fairness for all regardless of age, race or gender.
There are several benefits of young people learning about ageism. First if all education of ageism will open up young people to the actions and gestures unknown them that constitute ageism. Young people will become increasingly aware of how to treat old people and also become actively engaged in fighting for equality and justice in the society. This way the young people will assure themselves of wise counsel and guidance as they grow. Overall, increasing respect and cooperation between people of diverse ages will enhance the achievement of social-economic goals for a better and sustainable society.
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